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Direct Drive Racing Wheels: Examples, Benefits, Alternatives

Direct drive racing wheels have been around for some time now and they keep growing in popularity amongst sim racing enthusiast circles as they become more widely available. Consumers and reviewers alike praise the racing experience provided by these wheels, but many remain out-of-the loop regarding the underlying technology, use cases and inherent value of direct drive.

Today, we want to share with our readers an in-depth look at direct drive wheels in an effort to help consumers better understand precisely what direct drive systems are and whether or not you would benefit from purchasing one of these pieces of kit for yourself!

What Is a Direct Drive Wheel?

The direct drive wheel is a sim racing wheel base (often including a wheel rim as well) that is powered by a direct drive mechanism – a system in which the output device is directly driven by an electric motor. In the context of sim racing wheels, direct drive is a system in which the steering wheel rim is directly driven by the force feedback motor in the wheel base – as opposed to a belt-driven or gear-driven mechanism (more on these later).

One of the first things one notices when shopping for a direct drive wheel is the considerable price tag attached to all of the DD wheels on the market. While consumers could certainly be forgiven for assuming that the dramatic increase in price over traditional sim racing wheels is attributable to the fact that new tech is simply more expensive (and that factor certainly plays some part in the price, to be certain), the reality is that the primary reason for these hefty machines’ big wallet hit is the increased cost of production – which is in turn attributable to the more expensive materials necessary to ensure that the devices don’t destroy themselves under their own power!

That last point may seem like an overstatement or exaggeration, but the truth is that DD wheels have less moving parts internally and the relative lack of friction means that these devices can output massive amounts of torque at extremely fast refresh rates. Translation: low-quality materials such as those found in cheaper steering wheels are likely to bend or break very easily if used in a direct drive system.

While there are certainly tradeoffs to consider when weighing your options that stretch beyond the aforementioned price and weight considerations, most sim racers who’ve spent considerable time behind a DD wheel will tell you that DD is a direct upgrade from a wheel with belt drive or gear drive.

While DD wheels certainly don’t feature any inherent traits that preclude use by newbies, it’s worth mentioning to those that aren’t immediately turned-off by the prices – these wheels are exceptionally powerful and can’t simply be clamped onto a card table or small computer desk! This won’t be a problem for most seasoned racers who have dedicated rigs designed to mitigate the rumble and roll.

There are quite a few DD wheels that are worth your consideration and (arguably) your hard-earned cash as well; we’ve covered the most popular among them in a recent article that you should give a look when you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a direct drive wheel of your very own.

Examples

In the above article, we explain which direct drive wheels are best for most consumers, and outline our rationale for each choice. We should reiterate that the full article is a great resource for those who are in the market for a direct drive wheel, as it is meant to take the guesswork out of shopping for such an expensive product that can’t be practically compared to others due to the high cost paired with the fact that virtually no one has access to test units.

That said, here is a brief overview of each of The 7 Best Direct Drive Wheels:

  • Fanatec Podium DD1 – Backward and forward compatible with a vast array of Fanatec’s stellar accessories, this wheel base is quite costly – but worth every penny due to it’s immense torque and masterful craftsmanship.
  • Fanatec Podium DD2 – The sequel to the DD1 is a more powerful, more deeply-featured wheel base that improves on everything its predecessor does right while also raising the already- robust price tag by a considerable margin. It is not so much a question as to which of these two products is better; it’s a question as to whether the DD2 is better relative to its asking price.
  • Accuforce Pro V2 – Easily the best performer amongst the “budget” DD wheels, this one score high marks for advanced features such as auto-optimize and ultra-low input latency. Also note that the budget price is further emphasized by the inclusion of a great wheel rim – something that most of the other entries on this list can’t say for themselves.
  • Simucube 2 Sport – This great product from Granite Devices is unique in its dedication to providing unparalleled feedback fidelity – which translates into the most fine-tuned force range of any wheel we’ve tested to date. Translating on-screen physics to real world force feedback system output is something that sim racers might take for granted, but the Simucube 2 Sport builds its reputation on it.
  • Sim-Plicity SW30 – Another solid DD wheel aimed at the budget market, the SW30 is all about customization. This unit allows for tweaking of just about every detail of the sim racing experience one can ask for – and allows for the storage and hot-swapping of multiple profiles on the fly.
  • SimSteering 2 – Perhaps the best DD wheel out there for those willing to spare no expense in pursuit of the ultimate sim racing experience, the SimSteering 2 is a product that appears to have been made by engineers who thought of – and included – everything and the kitchen sink. Perhaps the most awesome feature of this one is the two part design, allowing the wheel itself to be mounted independently of the motor for quiet operation and enhanced cooling potential.
  • Simagic M10 – Another solid budget entry rounds out the list. This one includes not only a wheel rim, but toggle switches, push buttons, and paddle shifters as well. It’s worth noting that the 10nm of torque output by the motor is easily the lowest amongst these 7, but is still considerably more powerful and effective than those found in most non-direct drive competitors.

What Are the Benefits of Direct Drive?

Direct drive motors have a number of inherent advantages, and many of the great manufacturers in the sim racing peripheral market are leaning into this technology in order to advance the hobby to the next stage in its evolution. Some high end wheels include everything from robotics-grade angle sensors to an LED display (or better yet, an OLED display) but each and every DD since the first-generation wheels benefit from the following:

  1. High torque: While many gear drive and belt drive force feedback wheel motors output more torque than DD, they all lose tons of that power en route to the sim racer’s wheel rim. As the name suggests, the DD torque motor has a nearly 1:1 rate of torque generated to torque felt by the user. Even a cursory viewing of others using DD wheels will impart the impression that these racing wheels feel like the real thing in a way that inferior products simply do not.
  2. Better feedback fidelity: More torque doesn’t simply mean more power; it means more range and therefore more potential fidelity and range of sensations that can be simulated by the force feedback motor. Especially when used with high-end simulators, DD motor drives are capable of translating data from the physics engine into nuanced approximations of real-world sensations such as losing traction of a wet road or driving on gravel. It is probably fair to say that DD is the HD of sim racing.
  3. Improved durability: With great power comes great responsibility, and DD wheel manufacturers have had to take into account the considerable strain placed on these wheels bases when equipped with a direct drive servo motor. Perhaps the most welcome result of this engineering is that many components that are traditionally made of plastic or cheap metal have had to be replaced with advanced ceramics and more durable metals. The end user can feel this change in the considerably heavier wheelbases, as well as the smoother and more premium feel that ensues when playing a racing game.
  4. More realism and immersion: Not a separate point so much as the culmination of the previous points, it’s worth considering that all of the innovation and design that goes into creating this new generation of sim racer gear is ultimately meant to improve the experience of end users. As we move into the future, we only expect the power and fidelity to keep improving – but now is a great time to be alive and in possession of these amazing steering wheel products!
  5. More competition: When new tech is unfolding and spilling onto the scene, manufacturers scramble to be the first to implement new features and/or be the best at implementing them. This competition ultimately leads to exponential increases in array of experiences available to consumers and drives prices down. This phenomena tends to even have a trickle down effect to lower-end tech that is suddenly less-desirable by bleeding-edge enthusiasts; we’re seeing this even today as older gear or belt drive steering wheels become slightly less appealing and expensive.

The more you look into direct drive wheels, the easier it becomes to understand the world of possibility that is provided and the interplay between the various advantages it offers. Whether the much-higher price tags are a palatable trade-off is something you’ll have to decided for yourself, but one thing is undeniable – direct drive is here to stay.

Alternatives to Direct Drive

Traditionally, sim racing force feedback wheels have come in two distinct flavors: Entry level wheels featuring gear-driven force feedback systems, and high-end wheels powered by belt-driven servo motors. While we don’t expect either of these categories of sim racing wheel to disappear any time soon, we are trending toward a scenario wherein better wheels continue to move toward more competitive price points – which is a win for everyone involved.

Belt drive systems in particular have come a long way toward smoother operation in recent years, and seeing this rapidly-improving tech become more affordable and mainstream is perhaps the icing on direct drive’s cake. After all, high quality racing simulation requires a high end racing wheel, and more of these translates to more consumers becoming lifelong hobbyists – and we want as many people on our team as possible!

To the end of ensuring everyone is able to have a great sim racing, we encourage our readers to share their enthusiasm for our beloved hobby. It’s very easy to develop an in-group mentality and shun newcomers, but each newcomer is a potential life-long hobbyist that expands the reach of our hobby to even more people and ultimately leads to more racing games, more direct drive force feedback wheels and possibly even faster iteration and innovation in the space.

Whether your platform of choice happens to be PC, Xbox One or any other major consoles, there are a number of great traditional wheels worth considering for yourself or perhaps even as gifts for friends and loved ones.

Gear-Driven

There have been plenty of great gear-driven force feedback wheels in recent years, thanks largely in part to the efforts of two manufacturers – Thrustmaster and Logitech. The easiest to recommend amongst these wheels are those that strike a fine balance between durability, feature sets and price. The most notable gear-driven wheel available today is the Logitech G923.

Pros

  • Gear-driven force feedback motors are typically smaller than their more expensive counterparts, which tends to translate to lower power draw, lightweight wheel bases that are mountable with simple clamps – and the aforementioned lower price points.
  • Low price and ease of use translates to great entry-level products that give users a taste of what’s possible in the world of sim racing.

Cons

  • Smaller motors means less impactful force feedback – although this could be seen as advantage for user who prefer a more “arcadey” racing experience, as well as children who are not yet capable of steering a realistic approximation of a race car.
  • Gears operate less smoothly than do belts, which means that these wheels have a less smooth or linear feel than their more expensive cousins. Especially cheap gear-driven wheels tend to feel as if they’re being grinded rather than steered.

Belt-Driven (Servo)

Belt-driven steering wheels have traditionally held the alpha positions in the annals of sim racing excellence; frankly, many of the top wheels are still belt-driven even today. Belt driven systems will probably continue to be a major force in the market for the foreseeable future, as they continue to get better and better as their prices and subsequent demand climb.

These wheels are in something like a “goldilocks” position by virtue of being dramatically better than gear-driven wheels while also being dramatically more affordable than direct drive wheels. That isn’t to say that a good belt-driven wheel is cheap; they are simply a more palatable investment and represent a great compromise in performance-to-cost analyses.

Most of the major players in sim racing peripherals make belt-driven wheel bases, and the best recent models have come from the likes of Thrustmaster and Fanatec. While there are more solid belt-driven wheels than we have time to mention, we find that the Thrustmaster T300RS, Thrustmaster TS-XW and Fanatec CSL Elite are the easiest to recommend for most users who find themselves in the market for a high quality racing wheel but are not yet prepared to commit to DD.

Pros

  • When properly designed and built, belt-driven force feedback motors provide powerful force feedback response that is smooth and realistic.
  • Belts are more efficient than gears and create less friction – which means less heat, greater power efficiency and quieter operation.
  • Belt-driven wheel technology has matured to the point where many manufacturers are now selling reliable, high quality products at prices that didn’t seem possible even a few short years ago.

Cons

  • Belts tend to absorb and “smooth” the force feedback response en route to the wheel rim, meaning that these systems tend to lack the punchy, more nuanced response that’s possible with direct drive.
  • Belts and pulley systems need a lot of room to operate, which means that belt-driven wheel bases are usually larger and more cumbersome that other drive types.
  • While not as prone to breakage as gear-driven systems, the inherent characteristics of belt and pulley systems means perpetual wear and tear – which in turn means the experience is less consistent over time and necessitates maintenance and repair more often than other drive types. This is especially true with the more entry-level belt-drive products and an almost non-issue with the higher-end products.

Mixed

Some racing wheels fail to fall neatly into any of the aforementioned archetypal categories, and instead are designated as “mixed” drive systems. While some wheels that fall under this umbrella claim to be a hybrid of direct drive and another system, the very definition of direct drive precludes its use in conjunction with an indirect-drive type – so ignore that hype! The most common mixed drive is therefore the resultant hybridization of belt and gear types – of which the Thrustmaster TMX is the best example currently available for purchase.

Pros

  • The best mixed drive systems leverage the inherent strengths of on drive type in order to mitigate the weaknesses of the other; for example, belts and gears are combined to make gear-driven systems smoother and more responsive while maintaining tighter responsiveness.

Cons

  • These systems typically result in wheels that are as expensive as purely belt-driven products while offering the cheaper feel of gear drive wheel systems.

What’s Inside a Direct Drive Wheel?

With so many products on the market today, there is an unknowable quantity of variables in components and configurations and it is therefore impossible to tell you what you can and can’t expect to find inside any direct drive force feedback wheel – excepting of course for the core components:

  • Motor: A variety of motor types have been implemented in DD systems to varying degrees of success, but the most common and popular varieties are stepper motors (such as the one in the Sim Magic M10), outrunner motors (such as those in the Fanatec DD1 and DD2), and servo motors (such as those that typically for the basis for OSW and other homemade DD solutions – more on that later!)
  • Controller: Serves as the brains of the operation, translating input and output in real time to connect user/peripherals to PC/console and game/physics engine.
  • Motherboard: Brings all of the other internal components together, delivering power and relaying data. The motherboard also houses the I/O ports that you can see on the outside of the wheel.

Build Your Own Direct Drive Wheel (Open Sim Wheel)

Building any sort of peripheral from scratch is a daunting proposition for most people, and something as complex as a direct drive force feedback steering wheel is a construction project that virtually no one would intuitively suspect they’re capable of undertaking. Enter Open Sim Wheel, aka OSW.

OSW is a community created and driven project that marries the philosophy of open-source design concepts with the can-do attitude an aesthetics of a DiY tutorial. Aimed at those with a decidedly intermediate understanding of electronics and access to relatively basic tools – plus a lot of time on their hands – the OSW experience is one that can be extremely rewarding in more ways than one.

The biggest advantages of the OSW approach are the great potential to save massive amounts of money over pre-built direct drive wheels, the limitless customization afforded by the fact that you’re free to modify virtually every aspect of the build from tip to tip and – last but not least – the immense satisfaction and pride that can only be generated from within one’s self upon completion of a challenging job. If any of this sounds like your cup of tea, we’d love to walk you through the process from concept to completion with our Ultimate Guide to Open Sim Wheel!

Conclusion

Direct drive wheels represent not only the next big thing in the sim racing wheel market, but the current big thing as well. While it cannot be overstated how revelatory the direct drive wheel experience can be for sim racers, their impact on the industry goes far beyond the immediate experience and permeates deep into the very foundations of the hobby.

As direct drive wheels gain penetration and their install base widens, more sims (think iRacing on PC) and games (think Forza Motorsport on Xbox One) will design more and more features to complement the peak torque, feedback fidelity and sheer variety of experiences made possible by this exciting technology. That said, perhaps the biggest impact of this revolutionary technological merger will be felt by those entering the sim racing scene.

Most of us started our sim racing journey with a wheel that felt more like a Happy Meal prize than a race car part, and yet our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities for what came next. More and more great wheels are more and more affordable these days, and the entry-level experience has improved exponentially during that time.

It’s easy to envision a scene in which our friends, family and offspring are able to – with minimal financial commitment – have great racing experiences and join us in enjoying this special hobby. The better the tech gets, the less imagination is required and the easier it is to positively floor users with amazing race car experiences.

Direct drive won’t be the final step on the evolutionary ladder, but for now, nothing else makes you feel like you’re behind the wheel of a real F1 or GT car to nearly the degree that DD can – and that’s cause for excitement!

Last Updated on January 23, 2021